Rock Creek Winter Backpack – Good news: my eyeballs didn’t freeze

It was a 5.5 hour drive but mostly carefree with a lovely sunrise coming up the 15. The temps in the high desert was in the high 40s (F) for the most part and the air was clean and clear, every detail on the mountains (Sierra Nevada to my left, Inyo then White to my right) was so east to see. It was beautiful.

Sunrise over Cajon pass
High desert views
Clear mountain views

With daytime highs at about 37F and nighttime lows estimated to be 15F (+ light windchill) I anticipated what I got, and my Warbonnet hammock system, old Mountain Hardwear -15 synth bag, and 3 layers lower and 4 upper clothes kept me warm – no problems there, very pleased. Poo on you, lady who was shocked I was staying overnight and very seriously said to be careful! (The next day a young group skiing had on overnight packs, so I’m not the loan nutter, in case you were wondering.)

I have to admit that nighttime pee froze instantly, and my Kula Cloth was stiff haha, and at about 5am I thought my eyeball fluid was gonna solidify which made me think that by the end of 16 hours bundled up (stupid winter lack of sun) the guy at the gas station the next day was probably correct when he mentioned that nearby Mammoth dipped to 7F. This is your first hint I didn’t stay two nights as planned.

Anyhow, Rock Creek, a stunning autumn drive, was completely snowed in and lovely and super quiet. I actually paid for 3 days of SnoPlay, unlike the 3 other cars there on the way in and 20 on the way out, so was a bit miffed that they didn’t even plow the parking lot at the East Fork gate (~8900′).

Wall of mountains before going up Sherwin Summit on 395
Wall of mountains before going up Sherwin Summit on 395
Plowed Rock Creek Road
Plowed Rock Creek Road

Sunny days in the wide canyon meant I was carrying snowshoes as the top layer inside heavy tire tracks was sticky and easy to walk on with proper shoe tread. Just off it was absolutely not and was posthole city – a place that required skis or snowshoes to stay afloat. It was 1:52 and 2.83 miles and 800′ up Rock Creek Road to the boarded-up resort where I finally put my new snowshoes on. They are from L.L. Bean and I really love them: very easy on and off and excellent traction and just the right tool for the stretches of dry powder and straight-forward terrain this trip entailed. Kept me afloat instead of postholing, which made me very happy, and I had no issues walking in them – they felt natural immediately.

After that it was a straight, if tiring, trek still atop a road but no longer on tracks, to Mosquito Flats (10,200′) – a trailhead and backcountry campsite normally driven to. It took another 1:35 and 1.9 miles and only about 500′ gain (it felt worse but looked level) and it was tiring and I was feeling the pack weight of 29.8 lbs (including 2 liters of water, not including clothes or snowshoes) – I love all the updates to the second version of Granite Gear‘s Blaze 60 except for the padding which I find stiff and need to find a solution for so my hip bones stop bruising. It would be perfection if the padding was the same as the last version – I love the side pockets, waist pockets, and all the adjustability in a lightweight package that can still carry a bunch (it’s weight rated higher than I’d ever want to carry). The trip stats are at Garmin Connect:

No one had walked into the campsite – though certainly they had crossed the snow-covered bridge over a non-existent Rock Creek to the sign – and I set up very nearby (it’s nice to quickly find trees with proper distance) in a little half round of trees which provided protection and extra tie outs for my hammock which I needed because the snow was so dry that I couldn’t compress it. Even if I’d brought the heavy-duty snow/sand stakes, they wouldn’t have worked. I had brought my fav teeny Nemo Airpin Stakes with plans for my usual tie-then-bury method but it was impossible to bury anything – so I used my long cord to tie onto the other trees on one side, then to my great, but unneeded, Black Diamond ice axe buried to the hilt and my sunk snowshoes on the other. Even the drifts never got too much over 4 feet, just enough to bury posts to the signage, and often it was clear to the ground around trees, I was still postholing 4-8″ every time I stepped out to pee – and the dry snow just filled back in. These conditions are new to me and definitely needed snowshoes for float.

Then a problem: I know all pressurized fuel cans can have problems in extreme temps, but this wasn’t my first time trying to use one in winter (I’ll admit maybe not exactly this cold). This was my first time using a Jet Boil can vs MSR. I obviously cannot say that was the issue, they seem pretty similar build-wise, and the only reason I used a different brand was it the circumference is my kind of small so it fits inside my beloved Optimus pot / cup. I appreciate the space savings there. The sun was behind the mountains now, so despite the ample light the temperatures were dropping. The first try a lighter worked but the stove was iffy: it lit but it was not stable and flames were weird and shooting out (it was not windy, thankfully) and the can actually got a bit hot. I kinda freaked out and shut it off after a minute. I was hoping that the can warmth would now assist with better pressure, but on the second try the lighter ceased to work. Have I mentioned the temps were falling? The thing worked when I got back home just fyi, but the can itself sputtered and leaked when I tried at home again – never had that happen before and I don’t know what to make it of it. It must be noted that I was also using Optimus stove, instead of my old MSR pocket rocket. The only way to know for sure it to try it all again with the MSR tried-and-true stuff and see if I still have a problem.

Anyhow, I always have more food than I eat, although that shouldn’t be true (I don’t eat much during exercise nor elevation), so I wasn’t really bothered. This wasn’t a deal breaker, having 2 dehydrated meals I couldn’t eat (but they are actually yummy – the brand is Next Mile Meals and I heartily recommend them, so I was bummed). I munched on ‘lunch’ instead – tuna fish packet in coconut oil, crackers, dried cheese. I didn’t even eat all of it and just passed out instead despite being only 5:30pm.

The problem that made me leave after one night rather than doing a day hike into Little Lakes Valley was my water situation. In the middle of the night I went for a sip and realized I now had a rather serious situation. I should have slept with them and I should have used thicker-walled and wide-mouth bottles vs typical Smart Water reused bottles I backpack with. They both froze nearly solid. I mean, one should have been empty as I should have drank a liter for the 5 miles in, but it didn’t matter now. I was stupid in bottle choice and protection, but without a stove I was now not able to melt snow and there wasn’t any running water to speak of. BIIIGGGG whoops on stove and bottle choice for these low temps – but that is why you pick “easy” hikes with relatively quick exits in new situations, so you can bail without stress or disaster.

I peeked outside from time to time after sunrise, waiting for the sun to actually crest the canyon mountains to hit me. At 8am it was on the opposite slopes, at 9 it was nearly here. It’s always coldest before the sun returns, and I was reluctant to put on my cold Hoka Speedgoats (Goretext). My toes were still toasty in my absolute essential gear: Cabiniste down bootie meant for inside but I wear them *inside* a liner all night in my sleeping bag and mucking about campsites / going to the bathroom. I have been using this one pair a lot and never worn out so I have bunch of others just sitting around the house (I compulsively buy more of something I love since fear of it going out of stock is on my mind – happened to me a few times and now I stress about it). Anyhow, I stayed in the booties for a bit, but it was quite cold now and it was easier in the powder to be in shoes. I switched over, tried to keep my now freezing toes in the sunlight, and finished packing back up. I tried to lick ice / suck out any water I could, then I headed out.

One night trips kinda suck, especially when you have to retrace your steps. I saw on my newer Garmin 66 handheld (I had a 64 I loved but battery life sucked, this one’s screen got scratch immediately, which also sucked, but it works FOREVER and I can subscribe to SOS when I feel it’s warranted). With that in mind, I noticed that there was a trail that went down to the other side of Rock Creek Lake and decided to take it… it didn’t save me road at the start, and it wouldn’t save me the 3 miles of road back (I could have taken another trail after the lake, I’ve gone in snow before, but I was too tired and thirsty to try it), but it was a nice change of pace to be on an actual trail.

You might not know this, but most established trails are very easy to follow in snow: there is usually an obvious path through trees and brush, sometimes you can make out cut trees or lines of rocks, and sometimes it’s kind of sunk in from the surrounding snowpack. I mean, sometimes there are also footprints, but that was not the case here. I was the first one using the trail in winter (joy!) and the only other prints I saw were occasional critters so I enjoyed glittering, pristine snow (else wind-swept icy sculptures). It was fun now!

Except when I fell. Twice near the crossing at Rock Creek the snow just gave way and I learned it’s super awkward to pull out snowshoes from 12-24″ buried beneath you when there is no firm ground to push back up on. I, of course, wasn’t wearing my gloves at the time, as I had gotten super hot in Canadian Goose mittens, so my hands remain all pink, nicked bloody, and kinda faint purple bruises on my knuckles: even dry snow absolutely hurts to shove your bare hands into and this was through a 1/2 inch layer of crust. Plus, the second fall was after I had stopped at where I was about to cross and heard rushing water unseen below the white so I decided to turn around and cross at the flat, iced over bit when it happened, so that collapse was stressful – I didn’t hit water, thankfully, and it wasn’t a deep place anyhow. I did struggle uphill on the other bank, so I have some getting used to with showshoe use on steep powder – unless that always sucks no matter the skill? Probably when poles would have come in handy, but I absolutely hate them and it’s not worth the 2 minutes a hike I could use them.

Generally the trail was easy and mild, going downhill only slightly steeper than the road before it flattened out to meet it again around a different road that winds around the lake. When I passed the cabins after the cut off that meets the Dorothy Lakes Trail on the final decent to the lake, I didn’t like being on existing, deep prints so I was walking to the side and did, again, fall into collapsed snow. Again, I had taken off my gloves. I’m a dummy. A glutton for punishment, I guess. When I made it to the waterside campground, I sat on a bench top, the seats basically below snow level, and ate some macadamia nuts and tried to suck out some water than melted and enjoyed the view of a frozen lake beneath peaks mottled with snow and trees and rock. It had been 1:38 and only 1.75 miles with 500′ loss. Tiring and slow but lovely and totally alone.

Afterward I sucked it up, changed my pack straps to put more load onto my shoulders and off my hips, and pushed through the last 3 miles back down to the car. I took off my showshoes near the place where I’d put them on the day before – there were bits of Rock Creek Campground Road exposed and here I took another try-to-drink sit on a rock – then frequent breaks resting on my shoes like poles from time to time or atop a rock coaxing another frozen sip.

Lots of cars on a Saturday! I saw a lone dude walking around the lake’s shore (not on the road where I was), a couple of women skiing with dogs, the mixed young backpacking skiing group, a group on skis that were apparently learning about spotting avalanche danger, down on the lower trail a group was listening to someone but I couldn’t tell if it was shoeing or skiing. Seems like most people just went to the lake and back for < 6 miles, but as I was changing, drinking, and cleaning up, a group of bearded, large, camo-wearing men came down – no idea where they were, though there are lots of trails around. The days’ stats: 5.3 miles

I must note that everything in my car was also frozen except the water in a Hydro Flask. I did snack on the highly recommended Ozery Bakery breakfast rounds and some cheese from my Bare Boxer mini bear can, but the eggs and carrots in there were frozen solid: so much for bringing fresh food when it’s sub 20, right? So I drank the only non-frozen liquid I had, cleaned myself, tried to get things to melt in the sun (it was 37F with a cold breeze, but the sun was warm on the blacktop) but failed, and left. I pretty much drove straight home, other than a gas stop and purchasing something to drink. I weighed 3 lbs less this morning and still struggling to hydrate. Yuck! Anyhow, fun trip overall, just need to adjust a few things…

Sherwin Summit view point vistas
Sunset was excellent in all directions, pink one way, gold the other. <3

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